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Dogs in New Zealand

In these recessionary times, more people are welcoming man’s best friend into the family – but things don’t always go to plan.

Meet the secret  recession buster. He’s got soulful brown eyes, four paws and an uncannily good sense of smell, and has been trotting along with us for about 10,000 years. Up there with DIY and handcrafts, we’re spending more money, not less, on our dogs, despite tough economic times – maybe even because of them. The pet and pet-supplies markets are in strong growth, but dogs – because they’re higher maintenance, and above all, increasingly fashionable – lead the pack.

The indicators are numerous. Dogs and puppies are yet again in Trade Me’s top-10 search list this Christmas. A Christchurch dog food company has been rated the fastest-growing exporter in New Zealand.

A survey by the Companion Animal Council found we have been spending even more on the most expensive brands of dog food since tough economic times hit, even while stinting ourselves at the supermarket.

Call what used to be a mutt a “designer dog” and we’ll pay $1500 for it from a pet shop, when we could get a purebreed for half that price from a breeder, or a mutt of often equally uncertain provenance from the SPCA for a fraction of that.

Something about dogs makes us forget all about thrift. Whereas cats probably secretly run New Zealand – we own 1.4 million of them, an average of two per cat household, considerably more than in any other country – dogs get the most wallet-opening attention. There are 700,000 of them, attended to by burgeoning ranks of grooming parlours, daycare centres, manufacturers of dog clothing, including fancy dress costumes, and healthy and organic dog snacks – all businesses hardly heard of 10 years ago.

The Companion Animal Council survey found for the 30% of dog-owning households, the great majority regarded their canines as “members of the family”, rather than merely pets. Overseas, the publishing industry has had a tremendous husky sled ride on the pull of dog-power. In theory, reading about the antics of strangers’ dogs is about as appealing as looking at strangers’ snapshots of their children, however cute.

Yet starting with Marley and Me, about a maniacal labrador, other people’s dog stories have become best-sellers. Even lions of journalism, like New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson, have taken a walk on the dog side. Her blog about the – perfectly ordinary – experience of training a golden retriever pup turned into a sales topping book, The Puppy Diaries: Raising a Dog Named Scout.

Scout is just another nice sweet-natured, smiley golden retriever – but reader appetite for others’ experiences navigating the training, feeding and logistical issues of dog ownership made the story a hit, even without tear-jerky bits or Lassie-like adventures.

American poet and memoirist Mark Doty used a memoir of his dogs, Dog Years, to explore the experience of losing his partner to Aids and interpret the post- 9/11 environment, achieving commercial success and considerable critical acclaim. What the heck is going on here?

The blingy-dogs-in-handbags craze seems just the tip of a canine iceberg. In an immediate sense, the recession appears to have forced people back to things that seem more meaningful and elemental. Like the new popularity of handcrafts, our pets help us reconnect with life at an emotional level. We can’t do anything about the global financial meltdown, pandemics or terrorism, but at least our miniature schnauzer remains an innocent source of optimism and joy.

K9 Natural managing director Calvin Smith says for empty nesters, singles and people deferring having children, dogs are increasingly filling our strong maternal/ paternal needs. And they may even be part of an economic trade-off. “You feel guilty because you can’t afford the big family holiday any more – so you say, ‘But we can have a dog!’” (Although the average annual cost of keeping a dog works out at just over $1000, it’s still cheaper than a family holiday abroad.) But there are sterner perspectives.

Scientist and author Stephen Budiansky, though an unabashed dog-lover, has postulated in his controversial book The Truth About Dogs that the loyal chockie lab doting at your feet is actually a highly successful social parasite, con artist and sharpshooter. He says the human-dog relationship makes no biological sense, and DNA research keeps disproving all the logical seeming theories about how, and even whether, we domesticated the wolf and made him a pooch in the first place. Even our assumption that dogs’ hunting and herding contributions cemented this early deal turns out to be wrong, as such skills only emerged after domestication.

Tough stuff – although more grist for the publishing industry, as a slew of science- based books with competing theories about dogs’ place in history have preceded and succeeded Budiansky’s. Actually, any new book you read today about the origin of the domestic dog is likely already to be out of date, according to Massey Vet School’s Professor Kevin Stafford, who specialises in animal behaviour and welfare.

“I’ve had to change what I teach students four or five times in the past 20 years, because with genomic testing, we just keep finding out more and more.” For instance, a theory conceived in the 1990s – that dogs accelerated the development of human language when they moved in as security guard/alarm systems in early settlements – turned out to be bunkum. Even the assumption that dogs descended directly from wolves is now in question. And DNA evidence is constantly refining our knowledge of where and when the earliest humans co-existed with dogs.

Even a dog born and living in the wild is a very different animal from a wolf. As Budiansky says, biologically a dog may or may not be a “watered down, degenerate version of a wolf”. But unlike the wolf, the wild dog is capable of complex, original and creative behaviours that indicate it is a separate species. For instance, a wolf could never have pioneered the canny behaviour of Moscow’s feral dogs, some of which have even taught themselves to catch trains to visit food-scavenging areas at optimal times of day. In the wolf pack, there is one breeding pair – in layman’s terms, the “alpha” couple – which all the other wolves support.

The pack is self-rationing, because wolves operate on a strict basis of “owned” territory. They have their assigned range, and that’s all the resources they get. “If a wolf goes into another pack’s territory, it’ll be killed. So they have to control their breeding to be sure there will be enough to eat,” Stafford says.

Dogs in the wild have no such rigid hierarchy. They’re flexible. They breed at will, and although they do operate together and have a variety of dominant and submissive relationships, the territorial control is nowhere near what it is for wolves. However, Stafford says wherever dogs are left to fend for themselves over generations, they evolve to a sort of economy- model wolf, your basic dingo type: medium-sized with long legs, long muzzles and short tan fur. They’re nimble hunter gatherers, economical to feed (as they have to feed themselves) and have a sleek profile so other dogs have no trouble “reading” their body language.

Which brings us to the inevitable question of breed welfare. Spurred on by the famous Panorama documentary that highlighted canine suffering, including a prize-winning dog that routinely needed oxygen support, the dog firmament has finally begun revisiting some of the breed standard extremes.

New Zealand Kennel Club president Owen Dance says breeders are reassessing such issues as shortened snouts – which can lead to breathing difficulties – and leg and back lengths, which can lead to elbow, hip and spinal problems. Genomic knowledge means breeders can screen for time-bomb conditions like hip dysplasia and eye problems, and take gene carriers out of the mix. A complicating factor, however, is the rise of the “designer dog”, he says. Although cross-breeds have a wider gene pool, the countervailing risk lies in not knowing which undesirable traits and genes will come to the fore in your retrodoodle or poodleranian.

Although puppy-farming – the mass-breeding of lucrative breeds – is uncommon in New Zealand, there has been one recent related prosecution, and the Kennel Club is concerned about the activities of a few breeders. Typically, the puppy mill resembles a canine concentration camp, and breeding pairs are not selected with temperament and health in mind but purely for the ability to bring in cash.

The club is about to introduce a new optional premium standard for its members, which would certify that the member kennel meets certain conditions, including DNA screening, hip-scoring, desexing contracts in the sale of non-breeding and non-show dogs, and adequate facilities.

But though dogs have – almost – always been with us, it’s not clear where this now quite intense relationship is headed.
Given the experience of a friend of this writer, who found her son – who had once begged for a puppy – ignoring the frantic scrabblings for attention of his west highland white terrier because he was busy attending to his cyber-pet online, it’s easy to see some potential for Stafford’s dog redundancy scenario.Stafford says he wouldn’t be surprised if it came to an end within the next 50 years – not a prospect he greets with any enthusiasm. Pressures have already arisen via the environmental movement to classify pet ownership as ungreen and antisocial.

Cats’ predation habits have brought them the brunt of this so far. But Stafford says the dog’s economic paw-print has been likened to that of a Toyota Corolla, just another factor in its possible demise. However, looking at what the cash registers are saying, Rover’s household status is under no immediate threat. As Budiansky says, science now tells us the dog’s great evolutionary safeguard has been less its beauty and usefulness and more a genius for manipulation.